Friday, January 2, 2015

On burning books

For there is nothing essentially sacred about a book just because it is printed on paper and bound between covers.
Susan Hill, Howards End is on the Landing

In the movie Wild there is a scene where Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, is given advice on how to lighten her load as she walks the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Oregon. "Are you burning what you read?" the man asks her. He suggests that when she finishes reading a section of a book she should tear it out and burn it in her next fire along the trail. It won't make her a Nazi, he assures her.

The scene brought to mind the line by Susan Hill quoted above. There may be sacred books, but books themselves are not essentially sacred. If a book belongs to you, you are free to write in it, underline passages, give it away or throw it away when you are done with it or, if you choose, burn it. We burn flags when they become tattered and worn. We can surely do the same with books.

Yet "book burning" has such a negative connotation, and rightfully so, that many of us hate to destroy books that are already falling apart. I imagine thrift shops, chapters of Friends of the Library and others who accept books for resale get a lot of books so worn that nobody would buy them. Yet somebody just didn't want to throw them away.

I recall once receiving a review copy of a book on erotic Chinese art. I can't imagine why the publisher thought a newspaper would review such a book, which to my mind wasn't erotic at all, just obscene. But if I wasn't going to review it, what should I do with it? I didn't want to add it to my personal library. I had a little boy at the time, so I didn't even want to take it home. I normally gave unwanted review copies for used book sales raising funds for worthy causes, but I couldn't imagine donating the book to any of these. I suppose somebody would have loved to have the book, but I wasn't about to start offering it around to see if there were any takers. So finally, feeling a bit guilty, I just dropped it into the trash.

We need to value books, of course. We need to try to protect them and preserve them and try to find them a good home when we are done with them. But sometimes, as when hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, it's OK to burn them.

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